Spring look around the Big Ten
With spring practices over, our Big Ten notebook addresses the big questions for each team.
Which quarterback is the front-runner to take over for Brett Basanez at Northwestern? Why does Minnesota's running game look gloomy? Who's making a big impact on defense for Michigan? Our Big Ten notebook addresses those questions and much more.
Senior cornerback Alan Ball didn't play in Illinois' spring game on April 22 after breaking his arm in a scrimmage. That won't keep him out in the fall, but it curtailed an impressive spring by Ball, whose spot now goes to freshman Dere Hicks. Junior Charles Bailey Jr. has been impressive in switching from cornerback to wide receiver. Bailey caught two passes for 22 yards in the spring game.
The Hoosiers concluded spring drills April 15, which probably came as a relief to redshirt freshman receiver Andrew Means. He's been doubling up on varsity sports while playing baseball at IU. He caught a 76-yard touchdown pass in the Cream and Crimson game, and then went 2-for-4 the next day against Purdue in baseball. Quarterback Blake Powers looked sharp in the spring game, completing 10-of-13 for 111 yards and two touchdowns. The problem will be protecting him this fall. IU returns only two linemen -- junior center Chris Mangiero and senior left tackle Justin Frye -- who started more than four games last season.
The Hawkeyes have never been shy about playing two tight ends and using both as receivers, not just blockers. Look for more of the same after Tony Moeaki's emergence this spring. He and Scott Chandler will give quarterback Drew Tate a pair of weapons while the Hawkeyes try to bring along a group of young wide receivers. Redshirt freshman Rafael Eubanks finished spring ball as the starting center. He takes over for Brian Ferentz, who vacated the position due to graduation. Eubanks has proven himself reliable enough that Mike Elgin, who shuttled between starting at guard and center the past two years, is back at guard.
Part of the solution to Michigan's porous defensive play could be the rise of redshirt freshman defensive end Tim Jamison. Coach Lloyd Carr rated him among the top performers of spring ball, which concluded with an April 15 scrimmage. Fellow freshman Terrance Taylor also looked solid at defensive tackle and figures to contribute in a big way. It would also help if cornerback Leon Hall could provide the lockdown coverage that would eliminate one side of the field. He had a spirited competition with wide receiver Steve Breaston this spring, something coaches hope will make both players big factors this fall.
The bloodlines of strong safety Nehemiah Warrick suggest his spring performance is no fluke. He's the cousin of former Florida State All-American Peter Warrick and the chief reason MSU expects its secondary to be vastly improved in 2006. Another reason is the switch of Greg Cooper from free safety to cornerback, and the maturation of sophomore free safety Otis Wiley. The Spartans were woeful kicking field goals last season, but perhaps that won't be the case in 2006. Sophomore Todd Boleski is 6-6 and has a leg to match, booming field goals of 40, 47 and 55 yards this spring.
The forecast is gloomy for Minnesota's rushing game unless tailback Gary Russell regains his academic eligibility this summer. Offensive coordinator Mitch Browning labeled the attack "bleak" after a scrimmage and said, "We don't have a running back right now that's capable of playing at the Big Ten [level]." Browning might be overdoing it, since Amir Pinnix and Justin Valentine both sat out with ankle injuries. Sophomore safety Dominic Jones, although just 5-9, looks like an impact player. Junior Tony Brinkhaus has taken the lead in replacing All-American center and Rimington Award winner (nation's best center) Greg Eslinger.
Redshirt freshman Mike Kafka has the lead over C.J. Bacher and Andrew Brewer in the race to replace Brett Basanez as the starting quarterback. Don't be surprised if Brewer finds a way to get on the field somewhere. He could be a weapon as a slot receiver or utilized to run reverses.
The Buckeyes' spring drills took a somber turn when walk-on punter/receiver Tyson Gentry suffered a spinal injury in an April 14 scrimmage. Gentry has had multiple surgeries since collapsing after a pass reception and subsequent tackle. Head coach Jim Tressel, at the family's request, has declined to release information on Gentry's condition. This might mean something: Super freshman tailback recruit Chris Wells was taken behind incumbents Erik Haw and Maurice Wells when players drafted rosters for Ohio State's spring game. Antonio Pittman, who rushed for 1,300 yards last season, didn't play because of a pulled hamstring.
Butkus Award winner Paul Posluszny didn't play in the spring game on April 22, even though he said his knee is fine after suffering stretched ligaments in the Orange Bowl win over Florida State. The Lions lost their entire starting secondary to graduation. The replacements look to be Justin King and Tony Davis at cornerback and Donnie Johnson and Nolan McCready at safety.
Head coach Joe Tiller is being careful with sophomore safety Torri Williams, who redshirted last season because of a broken leg. Tiller thinks Williams can be outstanding, but a bulging disc in his back limited his time this spring. Brandon Whittington and Paul Long have been standing in, but Tiller wants Williams back on the field this fall. No wonder, since he once likened him to Rod Woodson. One reason Purdue expects big things from sophomore quarterback Curtis Painter is that four starters return on the offensive line and left guard Uche Nwaneri will also be back from a university-imposed suspension that sidelined him in 2005.
First-year head coach Bret Bielema plans to rotate eight players up front on his defensive line, but the best pass rusher among them might be junior Brandon Kelly who has been unblockable in spring drills. Linebackers Deandre Levy (groin) and Ryan Flasch (knee) didn't play in the spring game. Flasch could be gone for all of 2006 if ligament damage is detected once swelling subsides. Tailback P.J. Hill is raising hopes that he can provide some of the threat Brian Calhoun did last season. Hill's breakaway speed has been questioned, but he has already broke a 71-yard run in practice. Travis Beckum and Andy Crooks are hoping their moves from defense to tight end will translate into greater playing time. Both players were buried on the depth chart on defense.
Bruce Hooley has covered the Big Ten for 18 years and now hosts a daily talk show on WBNS-AM 1460 in Columbus, Ohio.
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